In spite of a year of war, Ukrainians endure and religious ministry continues

By Chris Herlinger | OSV News

IRPIN, Ukraine (OSV News) — On a February afternoon of welcome blue skies and bright sunlight, brothers Basil and Nicolai Knutarev surveyed the scorched apartment complexes in Irpin, Ukraine, where they once lived.

The apartments have remained untouched since a brutal three-week Russian siege and bombardment that ended March 28, 2022, more than a month following the start of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. With their charred exteriors, the buildings evoke danger and menace, underscored by the smell of leaking gas wafting in the cold air.

The siege resulted in nearly 300 civilian deaths, making Irpin, a once-tranquil community about 15 miles west of Kyiv, nearly as infamous as neighboring Bucha, the better-known site of alleged Russian war crimes.

Irpin’s pre-war population of 70,000 dwindled after the siege. Most residents have since returned, though some, like the Knutarev brothers, remain displaced.

Nicolai, 76, a retired factory worker, now lives in a nearby town but occasionally comes by Irpin to check on things, including picking up potatoes in a rented garage turned temporary storage cooler.

Basil looked up at the hulk of his vacant apartment building and shrugged.

“No progress,” Basil, 71, a security guard and retired factory worker, said of his destroyed sixth-floor apartment, despite promises of reconstruction from local officials. “No one knows the future.” His voice trailed off. “Just promises. We lost everything.”

Sister Lydia Timkova of the Dominican Sisters of Blessed Imelda, teaches a catechism class in Mukachevo, Ukraine, in February. Her students include new arrivals from other parts of Ukraine displaced during the war. The Dominican sisters are originally from neighboring Slovakia but have long experience in Mukachevo. Since the war’s beginning, Sister Timkova has traveled to eastern Ukraine at least three times to deliver humanitarian aid to areas hardest hit by the war. (OSV News photo/Gregg Brekke, Global Sisters Report)

“We lost everything”: It’s a sentiment shared by millions of Ukrainians uprooted and displaced during a year of a war condemned by much of the world that has transformed the face of Europe, increased international tensions and caused ripples in the global economy.

“Life has changed not just for Ukraine, but the whole world,” Sister Yanuariya Isyk, a member of the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great whose ministry is based in Kyiv, told Global Sisters Report. “We’re living a new life now. It can’t be the same as it was before the war. Life will never be the same again.”

The new reality is one of displacement and confusion, loss and death. Hospitals, schools and neighborhoods have been targeted in brutal acts that have outraged the world. The United Nations said more than 7,000 civilians, including more than 400 children, have died because of the war, and more than 11,700 have been injured.

Even far from the front, life is always on edge, with blackouts and electrical outages — Russia has targeted the country’s power grid — and constant air-raid sirens.

Yet Ukrainians also speak of renewed unity, solidarity and hope. In a country that has become one big conflict zone, the war has galvanized religious communities to open their doors to those who have been displaced and to lead various humanitarian missions.

Beyond her work in Christian education in Kyiv, Sister Isyk has coordinated deliveries of food — flour, pasta, canned fish and meat, rice, and milk — and medical supplies to those in need.

In May, she and other volunteers visited Bucha to meet with residents and pray at the mass grave of slain civilians. It was a hazy, cloud-filled day, and residents were silent as Sister Isyk and others unloaded the food and supplies. Then the tears came as people recounted their experiences.

“They told us how they survived and were grateful they could speak to someone about that,” she said. “It was important to hear their stories, to ease their pain and to comfort them.”

Such comfort is a needed balm. Catholic religious feel the promise of and hope for eventual victory, of resurrection, but that is still not visible.

“For us, 2022 was a year of deep darkness and crucifixion for the Ukrainian people,” Sister Isyk said. “Thousands of Ukrainian hearts were crucified, people’s destinies were mutilated, cities and villages were destroyed.”

“Ukraine and the Ukrainian people have experienced a long, difficult and painful year of Lent. Every Ukrainian has suffered during this year,” said Sister Anna Andrusiv, another Basilian sister who lives in the western city of Lviv. She and other Basilian sisters offered shelter in the early months of the war to those heading to nearby Poland.

There is no sign that the war will end soon. And earlier this month, people spoke of bracing for the worst, with many fearing a new Russian onslaught from the north, possibly from Belarus, a Russia ally.

“Right now, things are stable, but everything is still on the table,” Dominican Father Mikhailo Romaniv said of the situation in Fastiv, a community of 45,000 about 45 miles southwest of Kyiv. Father Romaniv heads the Christian Center of St. Martin de Porres, which assists mothers and children in addition to those displaced or experiencing homelessness.

Whatever stability Fastiv has is welcomed by Dasha Habovska, 24, and her 1-year-old son, Christian, who are living in a converted hospital on the city’s outskirts as part of the Dominican ministry. In early February, the residence housed seven families — 18 people in all.

Habovska and her son fled the then-occupied city of Kherson in September, leaving behind Habovska’s partner and Christian’s father, Daniel, who serves in defense work along the Ukraine-Belarus border.

In some ways, the decision to leave was easy because the family’s home was near an area of bombardment. But the separation has been difficult.

“It’s hard for Christian, being away from his father,” Habovska said. But, she added, she feels safe and is grateful for the assistance, care and housing she and her son receive. “They are providing so much help,” she said.

Still, there are the constant worries — about family back in Kherson, about Daniel, about the course of the war.

And yet even amid such uncertainty, ministries continue.

Sister Damiana Monica Miac, a Polish sister and one of five Dominican Sisters of Jesus and Mary who live and work in Fastiv, said a kind of routine has returned to the school where she teaches kindergarten.

Sister Miac, 53, has lived in Ukraine for 30 years. She recalls the beginning of the war as nerve-racking and trying. There was little food, and life felt like it was under siege.

“It was a hard time for everyone,” she said. “At first, I couldn’t pray at all.”

She eventually found solace and strength in her community and her teaching. There are 35 kindergarteners at her school, about half from permanent Fastiv residents and the rest from displaced families.

And Sister Miac’s prayer life eventually returned and even deepened.

“The rosary,” she said. “That helped.”

Sister Miac has come to trust further in God and said she thinks Ukraine will ultimately prevail. “I believe everything will be all right,” she said.

Even amid such optimism and signs of reconstruction in damaged areas like Bucha, the hurdles ahead are enormous, with the need for physical, cultural and spiritual repair.

“Ukraine has been damaged, and that is reflected in so many ways — schools destroyed, our heritage harmed,” Sister Isyk said. “It will take many years to rebuild and heal this society.”

Those displaced “have a wish to return home this spring,” said Edith Dominika Shabej, a Hungarian Dominican associate and Caritas coordinator. “But the problem is their homes have been destroyed. They have no place to return to.”

In many parts of Ukraine, she said, land mines left by Russian forces also pose a deadly threat.
As the war’s human toll climbs — with estimates of military casualties on both sides in the hundreds of thousands — Ukrainian military families need help and solace, as do returning war veterans.

Another problem: the rise in alcohol abuse as families separate, particularly as women have migrated to other countries and men who have not been conscripted try to find meaning in their lives. “They don’t know what to do,” Father Romaniv said of the men. “They drink. And without the women with them, they lose the motivation to work.”

Yet despite the extent of societal damage, the religious are adamant that Ukraine should not compromise with Russia to end the war.

“That would be a compromise with evil,” said Dominican Father Petro Balog, who heads the Institute of Religious Sciences of St. Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv. “It’s not Christian to compromise with evil.”

“Our task is not an agreement with death, not a compromise,” he said, “but to overcome it, and that is final. I think with God’s help, it is possible.”

In Lviv, where the signs of war are less visible, that sense of commitment is no less deeply felt.

“The thing people don’t understand is that Putin and Russia will not give us a real peace,” Sister Andrusiv said. “If they give us two years, they will come back and kill. That will not be a real peace.”

Ukraine is fighting a battle against tyranny in a war that has implications far beyond the borders of Ukraine, she said. “Our people are dying to protect the world.”

Sister Isyk said the country needs to remain steadfast.

“There will be a victory of life over death, good over evil, a celebration of victory over death, a celebration of hope and salvation, a celebration of good news after the dark night,” Sister Isyk said.

“By God’s grace, Ukraine will be resurrected.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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